Get on board for a high-tech game of Hide ’n’ Seek
When the Russian satellite Sputnik first streaked across the night sky October 4, 1957, heating the Cold War and hastening the space race, little did anyone know the impact that manmade near-earth orbit satellites would have just a few short decades later. Eventually Elvis would be beamed via satellite around the world live from Vegas, and the military would exploit the technology to the point of Big Brother and spy novels.
Communications, trucking and shipping management, maritime navigation, dashboard driving navigation, and the Internet all owe their existence to satellites. The military’s global positioning system (GPS), which uses multiple satellites working together, would evolve in short order, and further change and dictate not only how we wage war, but how we call in sick to work. After Sputnik the world became a much smaller (and less private) place. But it’s not all scary, or practical stuff. Some have found a way to enjoy the technology.
Fast forward 54 years from that October night and the now declassified GPS program has spawned a new competition, not among superpowers, but among your neighbors and thousands of visitors to the Grand Strand in the form of a high-tech hobby called geocaching. While this modern-day treasure-hunting hobby is not brand new, geocaching is enjoying a resurgence with the advent of Smartphone GPS capabilities. A stand-alone GPS unit is no longer required to play, and a new legion of geocachers is exploring their world by using their phones. With the push of a few buttons, coordinates are triangulated by orbiting satellites, all in an effort to play a game.
The biggest thrill, say most geocachers, is the race to be the “first to find” when a new cache is posted online. Confused? So was I until I met the Schoonover family of Conway, with whom I went on my first-ever geocaching adventure. We began our day in the parking lot of Myrtle Beach Mall. Thunder rumbled in the distance as I watched the threatening skies and waited to meet my fellow treasure hunters.
Just days prior to our meeting I found Chip “Mackey” Schoonover, whose family geocaching moniker is The Mackey Bunch. I found Schoonover, and dozens of others like him, on the local community forum pages of www.geocaching.com, the first and largest website dedicated to the hobby. I knew only that he would arrive with one or more family members in tow. When the Schoonover family piled out one at a time, I was more than a bit surprised as they kept coming—first Chip, then his wife, Karen Schoonover, and then four teenaged daughters, all of whom were avid geocachers. The girls were bright, fun, energetic and totally at ease with each other and their parents.
“They love it,” said Chip Schoonover, when I asked if this was a regular family event. “They compete to see who can find [the cache] first.” The girls waited for their parents to read the clues and get started on the hunt. We already knew a cache was nearby. So what’s a “cache” you might ask, and how did we know it was nearby?
There is no geocaching, which officially began in 2000, without a few things: the aforementioned satellites, a GPS-capable device, the Internet and the caches themselves. The caches, which can be very large or very small, are usually the size of a one-quart container, such as a Tupperware food storage box, or an old ammo box. Inside these weatherproof containers are trinkets, the kinds of things you’d get out of a gumball machine, and a logbook, where you write your name and the date you discovered the cache. You might leave a note, or read notes left from other geocachers. You might discover a Travel Bug, which is a trackable, moveable trinket, which may travel around the world through the efforts of active geocachers. When you get home you log on to the website and record your find, rate the cache, leave comments about the find, all without telling future hunters exactly where the cache is hidden.
The Schoonovers, who are less active now than when the girls were younger, have logged many hundreds of finds and have hidden around 50 caches themselves. Individual avid geocachers have logged tens of thousands of finds from around the globe. The costs are minimal, and the fun and camaraderie among their fellow estimated 5 million geocachers worldwide, according to the Schoonovers, is the real reason to play.
According to www.geocaching.com the hobby is described this way: “Geocaching is a real-world outdoor treasure hunting game. Players try to locate hidden containers, called geocaches, using GPS-enabled devices and then share their experiences online.” The Schoonover van has a license plate frame that reads “What’s Your Hobby? I use multi-million dollar satellites to find Tupperware in the woods.”
The How To
Emailing a local geocacher and requesting a tag-along, as I did, is not a bad way to explore the hobby. If you decide you like it, you might start by registering online at www.geocaching.com, purchasing a GPS unit, or buying the $10 software to operate on your Smartphone. Registration is free, but to get the full experience you’ll need a full membership, which is $10 for three months, or $30 annually. As you navigate through the website you might notice several thousand hidden geocaches located along the Grand Strand, and there are nearly 1.5 million active caches, in more than 100 countries, found on every continent. A set of GPS coordinates—the latitude and longitude—will typically get you to within 5 to 25 feet of the hidden cache. After entering your GPS coordinates you’ll follow a map, and figure out generally where you need to go. Clues, codes, decryption keys, lock combinations, and notes from the cache’s owner will give you a better idea of where and how, specifically, you might find the cache—but these owners don’t make it too easy and the clues can be quite cryptic. For example at coordinate 33.78653 -78.78997 the clue is “You can drive a distance in a car but much less of a distance with a club.”
In keeping with the spirit of the hobby, we won’t divulge the locations of the caches we found that day, as that’s the whole point of the game. As a novice, I was along as an observer. We reloaded into our vehicles and I followed the Schoonovers to the coordinates of the nearby cache. When we parked, the girls again piled out of their van, split up and began poking around under bushes and behind trees, shouting, laughing, bumping into one another while the Schoonover parents took a different approach, reading and double-checking the clues.
“At this point we just tell ‘em Go!,” said Chip Schoonover, smiling at his girls, which include 14-year-old Haley, 15-year-old Halice, 17-year-old Hollie, and 18-year-old Heather, who is a freshman at Coastal Carolina University. The Schoonovers have lived in the Conway area for several years, after relocating from Florida. Chip Schoonover owns and operates a home-based Internet business, A-Plus Wholesale Travel, and Karen Schoonover is a travel agent.
The first cache we found was a small container wrapped in camouflage duct tape and hidden within a bush. The keen eye of Halice helped her uncover the well-hidden cache, but the youngest, Haley, is the most successful of all the Schoonover girls. “She just gets right down on her hands and knees,” says oldest sister Heather. “It’s an adrenaline rush when you’re competing against your sisters.”
“I work at Maryland Fried Chicken,” continued Heather, “and it’s fun because we have a cache [near] there and I can look out the window and always spot someone who’s looking for it. My friends wonder what I’m talking about sometimes.” Caches are never buried, and permission is required to place a cache on private property. Most public places, including parks, the beach, and many parking lots are loaded with caches you’d never know were there. On this day we would look for an urban cache, a beach cache, and a “woodsy” cache.
When we opened the first cache we were after, two rubber balls bounced out, as did a few trinkets, and a logbook. Halice recorded her name, replaced the contents, and the cache where it had been hidden. Myrtle Beach is one of the most popular and active geocaching sites in the country, says Chip Schoonover. “I think there’s a cache hidden at every single public access point on the beach,” he said. “There are more hidden caches in Horry County than anywhere else in South Carolina. If you really know what you’re doing you could start in Little River, and head south to Surfside Beach and find 150 caches in one day.” When I plugged my Myrtle Beach zip code into the website I found 3,448 active caches within a 100-mile radius.
Hide ‘n’ Seek
Creating and hiding your own cache, according to the Schoonovers, is as much fun as finding another’s, but a certain protocol is expected to keep your cache active and well maintained. As hobbyists come and go, so do their caches, and sometimes vandals, animals, or the elements will ransack a cache, though there’s usually nothing of value inside. Creative locations and clues are the challenge of geocaching and each cache is rated for a variety of criteria—difficulty in finding, the terrain, the size of the cache, kid-friendliness, is it a good lunchtime or nighttime excursion, is there wheelchair access, what’s the proximity to your car once you’ve parked? Maybe the cache is a good “park and grab,” meaning it’s a good quickie. There are “Beware of Muggles,” caches, which means there’s a strong likelihood of being spotted by a muggle, a non-geocacher who may wonder what you’re up to.
“We’ve had the police show up a couple of times,” said Schoonover, “but they’ve gotten used to us, and have been called so many times by muggles who see suspicious activity that they know what’s going on. They’re a lot more friendly now.”
“We’ve had run-ins with snakes,” said Halice Schoonover. “We walked several miles into the woods,” continued her mother, Karen Schoonover, “and we had to take a picture [of a code], and decipher it to find the cache—those are called Puzzle Caches.”
The family-friendly aspect of the hobby has worked for the Schoonovers, who all revel in the shared experiences.
There are plenty of levels of geocaching, making it a hobby in which you can participate regularly, periodically or infrequently. The Schoonovers hadn’t been out recently, but this single two-hour excursion rekindled something deep within each, and they were already discussing when they might go geocaching again.
We found other geocaches that day, but I’ll never tell you where. Like me you’ll have to log in and venture out into the great unknown armed with a Smartphone, latitude, longitude and a little bug spray. Happy hunting.
An estimated 5 million people worldwide, and many thousands along the Grand Strand, enjoy this hi-tech outdoor treasure-hunting hobby. Below is a primer on some of the geocaching lingo, so you don’t sound like a muggle.
A weatherproof container holding trinkets and a logbook. A registered geocacher hides a cache, and its general location is logged online. Then other registered geocachers use latitude and longitude coordinates on a GPS-enabled device in an attempt to find the “treasure.”
One who engages in the hobby/sport of geocaching.
Short for coordinates, the latitude and longitude of a hidden cache. Every square inch of the planet has been assigned a specific coordinate.
Global Positioning System. First developed by the military, GPS uses triangulation and geosynchronous satellites to beam coordinates to and from a GPS-enabled device.
A non-geocaching civilian who may wonder what the suspicious poking around is all about. A muggle may molest a cache; so all effort is made to hide the activity from them.
An inexpensive, trackable trinket, which gets logged and moved from cache to cache. The “owner” of the bug can watch its progress online.
First to find. The Holy Grail of Geocaching. When a new cache is logged online, it’s not uncommon for multiple geocachers to arrive at the coordinates within minutes. Collecting FTFs is a big deal.
Where to Begin:
www.geocaching.com. This website is the primary spot to learn about local caches, register as a geocacher and get started in the hobby.